Thursday, May 10, 2012

Snow in May: Katteli

Tuesday morning I woke up early to take the train to Myrdal and meet my high school students on their overnight trip. As I brushed down the aisle of the lokaltoget, I heard my name called. Vilde, one of my brightest and most mature students, was moving her backpack so I could come sit with her. She’d been sick the day before and was going up to meet the class like me. The two hour ride passed quickly as she filled me in on all the details of her life and perspective that one never gets to hear about in the classroom. She told me her dad said she's got so much potential, she must fulfill it. I hope the hokiness of the statement doesn't put her off-- the girl's got talent, and a pressuring father won't make her rebel. She's too stable. 
The rest of the class jumped aboard at Eggjareid stasjon. They seemed to have arrived from nowhere: the train tracks stretched into tunnels in the mountain on either side, and looking out one saw a vast expanse of snowy mountain wilderness, but craning my neck down I could see Katteli, the school’s hytta, or cabin, buried in the snow at the bottom of the slope. The class had struggled up the slick ice to the train platform, and were all cheerfully pulling off scarves and stamping their feet as they steamed into the carriage.
At Myrdal we took the Flåmsbana down to Berekvam. Led by the geology teacher, we hiked down the valley to Flåm. It was an easy walk, fairly flat and mostly gravel road or paths that meandered back and forth across the river’s bridges. At first I picked up the rear, fooling around with the Rwandan, Afghan, Palestinian, and Yemeni kids who were part of the freshmen immigrant class (mostly refugees, they are in their own class so they can have extra help on Norwegian and English). They decidedly disliked hiking, but luckily my smidgen of Arabic amused them. We bonded over the word fadicha and they kept moving. Then the Norwegian teacher, Ødin, held the back and I got to move around, chatting with my students in pairs and small groups. They told me about their lives before Katten, their families, their social cliques and hobbies and travel plans. I learned who lives with their grandparents, who wants to be a politician or journalist, who has sibling rivalries or siblings with disabilities, and who has boyfriends or girlfriends. Watching them together made me strangely emotional. They watch each others’ backs in the nicest way, and were quite happy to chat with me despite the fact that it meant they had to work away in English.
We stopped at the Flåm church, where the kids sang the hymn ‘Forst songen jeg horte’. I sat outside with Nasro, my Somalian student. She wasn’t sure whether she was allowed in a church, and so we slappet ourselves by the cemetery gate. She told me how she’d lived in a tiny village like Flåm for her first two years in Norway and actually really enjoyed it because, she said, ‘I was the only different one. The only different person in the whole village. So I could do whatever I wanted. I could ride a bike in a skirt and nobody thought it was weird, they just thought it was me.’ I understood. That ability to define oneself so freely is something that’s come to me in Bergen as well. We chatted on about her family, who lives in Kenya now, and her shyness of speaking in class, and the cultural adaptations she had to make when she came to Norway.
We spent a few minutes in Flåm so the kids could load up on chocolate milk and Freia, and then took the train back up to Eggjareid and belly-flopped our way down the mountainside. Every few paces the snow turned slippery and we all fell when we hit the same spots, popping back up and then slipping a few more feet as though we were jack-in-the-boxes on an assembly line. Ingrid, right behind me, resigned herself and just slid the whole way down on her butt. Our soundtrack was an orchestra of high-pitched shrieks and giggles. We reached Katteli from the back, where they hadn’t bothered clearing a space, so that the snow was tucked up to the roof and it looked as though the building were one enormous inverted book on its side. The front had a path cleared, though, and we jumped from the high snow bank down into the doorway and stumbled into the mudroom, already a tangled jungle of boots.
I hung with a group of my students before dinner, and decided to stick with them for the meal. They were more comfortable and less inhibited with me than the teachers, some of whom felt decidedly out of their depth in English. But the girls rapid-fire chattered away as though we were at summer camp and I the cool counselor. I sang ‘Hurrah for deg’ for Eirin since it was her birthday, cracking them all up and making them do the movements along with me. Later that evening Åshild came up shyly to ask if I wanted to play cards with them. I blew their minds with the American versions of card games and Mafia. Can you imagine, they play without even a doctor or detective, to say nothing of the various other townspeople that fit into my scenario?
In the morning we took a bus ride to Voss that startled my eyes with its magnificence and my stomach with its windings. This was the kind of journey that my grandparents had paid a thousand kroner to see, and the students slumped against the windows and snored through it. Sometimes I want to shake Norwegians and shout, ‘’look! You live in heaven! Admire it, dammit!’’
We arrived at the Voss Folkesmuseet, a museum of Norwegian history and culture. I shocked my students when I interrupted the tour guide to ask a question. You just asked something in perfect Norwegian? You understood him? Do you understand us? What most of them wanted to know was, ‘But why would you learn Norwegian?’ They don’t seem to grasp the wonder of a new language unfolding, but see English as a purely pragmatic exercise.
Today I had the most awkward experience of my entire teaching career. At least, I hope. I was minding my own business, teaching away on how to integrate evidence with analysis in an essay, and a few russ, or graduates, knocked on the door to ask if they could do a russ activity. They wear stupid pom pom hats during early May which acquire knots when they fulfill activities, boy scout-style. Anyhow, I was game, and told them they had five minutes. It was only when I sat down in the back that one of the Martins told me they were about to teach sex-ed.
Okay, I figured. It will be funny. Well, it wasn’t. It was insanely inappropriate. I’m not sure exactly what happened between that moment and the one in which a russe was dry-humping one of my students on the teacher’s desk, but eventually I figured out that I ought to send them packing, yet I still hesitated. Everyone was laughing, including the student who had volunteered, but after they’d moved into a wheelbarrow posture I said, ‘Good job’ in a very final tone and waved them out the door. I feel guilty—I think I didn’t react quickly enough. For a long moment I forgot I was a teacher in charge of students, and felt like an incredulous American lost in Norwegian culture. I was the foreigner who didn’t know what was going on, instead of the teacher who keeps the classroom a safe space. The kids seemed mostly amused by it. A couple covered their eyes in embarrassment, while most just clapped and congratulated the volunteer on being so cool about it. One filmed it on her camera. So now I’ve had this experience, and know that I wouldn’t allow it again, but this is one of those utterly useless experiences where the lesson learned is unlikely ever to be needed again. I hope.  

Pictures from Katteli:

Anita listening intently

What do you mean, we have to go back DOWN???

The view from our window in the morning

Working on the group picture
Honestly, how could you not adore these kids?

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